Saturday, December 19, 2009

A New Venture: Living History Podcast

I really was not staying busy enough with my regular job, new house, and all the reenactments that I've been doing lately. So Stephen and I decided to launch a new venture we are now producing a podcast called: Living History, the Podcast for the Reenacting Community. We've got a couple of episodes up already at:

We'll try to do weekly shows on all sorts of living history related topics like: interacting with the public, event survival 101, public perception of reenactors, interviews with all sorts of reenactors, history professionals, and more!

We really hope this podcast is going to be a dialogue between many different areas of the reenacting community, because we are a diverse body engaged in so many different aspects of history. We hope folks will contribute topic ideas, disagreements, new perspectives, anything at all relating to Living History, which is a wide category.

Please listen, then if you would not mind giving us a rating and review on iTunes we would appreciate it!
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Wednesday, December 16, 2009

Creating An Identity Out Of Culture

On my commute to work I am listening to A Feast Of Words a biography of Edith Wharton written by Cynthia Griffin Wolff in the 1970s. I am enjoying it for the most part, much more than I do reading actual Edith Wharton fiction, and it is long enough that it fills up quite a bit of my commute. There is a bit too much psychoanalysis in it for my taste, the biography feels very 70s in that way, but I am learning a lot about Edith Wharton, and a little about myself too. The author spends a lot of time talking about Edith Wharton’s fiction as a protest against the stuffy late Victorian society that Edith Wharton grew up in, and frames her life as a rebellion against the repressions of her mother and the society that created her mother (see what I mean about rampant psychoanalysis?)

But this morning on my way in to work Griffin talked about Wharton’s time in France during World War I, when she witnessed first-hand the German destruction of the French countryside. She was struck by the detritus of every-day life that was left behind after the Germans had blasted away whole portions of towns, she was moved by the lives that the blasting had revealed. According to Griffin,

“[Germany] had aimed to destroy those things that support life—the countless, habitual, humdrum associations and pursuits that give meaning to existence. Plodding grimly through the mud, her quick novelistic eye missing no detail, Wharton began to formulate a new notion of tradition: it is the matrix within which individual personality is defined—a delicate framework of familiarities and understandings by which man’s sense of self is confirmed and reconfirmed in his main daily encounters. Civilization is not something external to each of us, nor is its primary function one of suppressing freedom and growth. Rather, the civilization of any given time and place becomes an integral element in the personality of all its members: it sustains them, informs their existence with meaning, and changes—even as their lives change—with a slow, measured continuity.”

- Cynthia Griffin Wolff, A Feast of Words, The Triumph of Edith Wharton

I heard the above and thought, this is so true! This is what I have been trying to get across in every historical reenactment I’ve done for a public audience. This is why I think there is a place for first person interpretation as a form of education. While I may play only one person out of an entire civilization, I believe it is possible to shed some light on that civilization in this manner. Personalities, and living history character personalities especially, are not created in a vacuum.

I think this is especially important for new reenactors to understand. It is incredibly daunting when your new persona is a blank slate, when the possibilities are almost limitless, but at the same time the facts about a given historical person are so few. I think, to many people the initial steps in character development can be the hardest to overcome when getting into reenacting.

When I start in on a new character for a new period, or maybe just a different show or event, I often go in trying to think about the larger culture that I am portraying. What has attracted me to this particular culture? What seems totally outside of my experience? What about the culture at large is important for me to get across to my audience? Often the characteristics of a person can come out of the answers to those questions. This has been especially true in the two personas that I created in the past year.

Hanne is the wife of a military leader from the Holy Roman Empire in the year 1529. That much I knew when I set out to create a character. Now I’m not crazy about the military stuff, but really wanted the chance to do cooking demonstrations and participate in a new historic encampment. So I took a look at the cooking I wanted to do and decided that Hanne should be pragmatic; though the captain’s wife, she knows how to cook, wash dishes, and doesn’t mind teaching others. One of the amazing things to me about the Landsknecht (Holy Roman Empire Military troups) or any military unit is their pride. Pride seems to be a big part of being involved in military matters, so I translated that into Hanne as a pride of family, and protectiveness of the unit of which her husband is the leader. This also allowed me to play a noble woman who is proud of the work she is doing, so she does not mind getting her hands dirty. I got to show off the fact that Hanne is lower nobility, she expects to wait on those higher up than herself, and that not all noble ladies are prissy princesses. I was too busy cooking and keeping house during most of the encampment weekends to delve much more deeply into who Hanne is, but I felt perfectly comfortable talking to audience members, and knowing that I could answer all questions as Hanne saw the world, and in a way that might get at some larger cultural traits.

Sarah is very different. We were asked to present some topics at a “Pioneer Day” school show. Stephen has a solid Wild Bill Hickock presentation, and we had a good foundation on a “Talk Like a Cowboy” presentation by our Friend Tom. Amanda was willing to tackle a campfire cooking demonstration (though that one did not fly at the last minute, hopefully next year we’ll overcome a school system’s fears about fire.) I had tons of nineteenth century research under my belt, and even a couple of characters, but the Irish Maid in the governor’s mansion did not feel right for this setting, and I did not want to do some poor downtrodden farmer’s wife. One of the topics that I found intriguing from my studies about Nineteenth Century America was the spirit of innovation; this plays out in the industrial revolution as well as the western expansion movement. Innovation did not stop there: politics, religion and family life were receiving widespread attention and undergoing a lot of upheaval in the Nineteenth Century. This applied to both the eastern United States, where most of my research had been done, and further west, especially since the railroad meant that people and ideas could travel, and printing innovations meant that opinions and ideals were traveling faster than they ever had before. Sarah turned out to be an itinerant lecturer, spreading the benefits of new educational philosophies to one and all. She is upbeat and positive that social change can be enacted. She takes for granted the availability of newspapers and magazines (I make sure to mention them often) and finds the hardships of travel to be an adventure. She is still awkward when out of her comfort zone, she is an urban dweller who is uncomfortable facing the realities of a farm life. She believes that the ideas and opinions she is presenting are cutting edge, and must therefore be the right ideas. There is not a lot of room for real life in her rigid ideals. This is also the way I think of nineteenth century reform movements, whether it was the abolition movement or the temperance movement. I only had 20 minutes to talk to these kids and get across a fuller picture of people living the pioneer life and how they saw their place in the world. I used the facts I had on hand mixed in with physical mannerisms, modes of speech, opinions, and cultural assumptions to create a living breathing person.

If you’re new to reenacting, and scared to take the plunge, the best advice I can give you is keep researching, keep reading. Find out as much as you can about a time-period, about a place and time. Keep hold on the facts that fascinate, some day they will suggest a personality to you that will let you live within the culture because, “the civilization of any given time and place becomes an integral element in the personality of all its members.”

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Tuesday, December 8, 2009

The most popular reenactment I’ve ever seen

I’ve never been to Gettysburg during a reenactment event. I know this is a tragedy, and one that I must remedy soon, but I am mentioning it now not to get an invite, but to state right off the bat that this is not a post about that sort of reenactment. I’m not talking about an event with tons of participants, but an ongoing experiment in historical marketing that has become the darling of New York City, and of the media elite. And one that I admire very much

Beekman 1802 is a farm, that two men --Josh and Dr. Brent as they are referred to in their blog-- bought, restored, revitalized, and are now marketing to the world through sales of goat milk soap and other farm or local artisan products. Two things intrigue me about Beekman 1802: the way that it is a historical reenactment, and the fact that they are a marketing phenomenon.

Living the Historical Reenactment
I don’t consider house museums to be living history, because they do not seem alive. Of course a house can seem alive, when it is lived in, when there is action in the house. To me, you can call a historical house living history when it is used as it was when it was lived in. I think a hearth cooking demonstration can be living history, and living in a restored house, especially restored to evoke a certain time and story is definitely living history. Did Josh and Brent restore the Beekman farm to the year 1802 exactly? the web page photos indicate to me they did a pretty good restoration. Do they live in it as a reenactment? well, not exactly, they’ve got a modern kitchen, use electricity, they are not living their lives as a reenactment, but they are bringing history to life in the way they are running an active farm, selling products with historical roots, and most importantly to me, they are using the history of the farm as an incredibly effective marketing tool.

Marketing the Historical Reenactment
I stumbled across the web page by following a link to a nifty holiday decoration. Once on the site I surfed around and discovered a restored farmhouse, a herd of goats, some blog entries, and some soap. At first I didn’t get it. How could these guys support this gorgeous farmhouse and themselves (Dr. Brent had recently given up a professorship in New York City) on just soap? I know tons of people selling hand made soaps at farmer’s markets, artisan galleries, and fancy boutiques, but it is not a lucrative business. In my opinion the market is rather flooded with fancy soap; and I have a hard time justifying the purchase of fancy soaps when I’ve been using the same brand most of my life and it works just fine. Since subscribing to their RSS feed I have been able to discern two success factors: An astute marketing of history, and notice by the elite media.

Some of the blog entries on Beekman 1802 are stories from the perspective of a little girl living in the Beekman house in 1802. I don’t think they are written particularly well, but they connect Josh and Brent to those who built the house. Much better written are the entries about the products they are selling under the Beekman 1802 brand. Every entry connects the specific product to that product’s history and to the region. Especially well connected are the stories of their blacksmith friend, who is using old methods, working with his hands to create something authentic. As the authors of the book Authencity and the authors of the Museum Audience Insight Blog at Reach Advisors have written: authenticity sells. And one of the most authentic things out there is history.

While I’m sure their soaps are great and their cheeses are fantastic (anyone who wants to gift me some I’d be happy to find out for you) those products are not really what they are selling. They are selling the authentic historical experience, and I say, bravo Josh and Brent.

The other entries that shed light on Beekman 1802’s success are the media mentions. When I started reading their blog I found the entry written after Josh and Brent had been photographed and interviewed for an article in Vanity Fair. They’ve made it on the Martha Stewart Show, and I heard mention of Oprah, but now can not find it again. A recent entry included a New York Times photo slideshow that included a photo of soap, but mostly concentrated on the old house, looking so charming with a layer of new white snow. I don’t know how Josh and Brent did it, but they’ve made it in the elite media, they are a marketing success. To top it off, I hear rumors of a 10 episode show on the Discovery channel about Josh and Brent. It makes me sad that I will not have cable by the new year, I'll have to wait for DVD.

These media outlets are not covering traditional reenactors in any large numbers, so what it is about Josh and Brent? They are articulate and good looking, they have very 21st century sensibilities. They play up the history, but they do not obsess, they concentrate on the product and on their lifestyle, not so much on the lives of the dead and gone. They’ve got a good story to tell, and they tell it very well.

If Josh and Brent write a book, a beautiful picture book like the Tasha Tudor ones, I will keep a copy beside my bed, to prove that it can be done, that you can successfully be living history.

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